Amphora is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful and unique puzzle-adventures I've played, and also one of the hardest to describe. Imagine Aladdin's lamp from The Arabian Nights, except that instead of a lamp there's an amphora (a sort of ancient urn) and instead of a genie there's a benevolent smoky presence with telekinetic powers. And Aladdin's a girl who's being protected and guided by the genie while being blissfully unaware of its existence. Add in a story of life and love and war and revenge, all told in the form of shadow theatre, and you'll get some idea of how unique this game is. It is by no means perfect – it can be frustrating at times, and the story is pretty short and not that original – but when it works, it offers some lovely moments.
Playing as the genie (for want of a better word), you act as a sort of guardian angel to a little girl, watching her grow from a baby through adolescence and on into womanhood. I initially assumed that the amphora was a family heirloom, but it turns up in some decidedly odd places over the course of the game, such as a city under siege, at the bottom of the sea, and an army training range. Perhaps there's some kind of ceramic magic going on, but it always seems to wind up where it needs to be, a bit like the Doctor's TARDIS. Over the course of the game you'll help your charge through good times and bad, happiness, love, loss and revenge; quite a broad palette for a puzzler! Without words to guide you, it's a story told in very broad strokes and it's ultimately quite familiar, but it tugs at the heartstrings nonetheless.
Events play out as a series of self-contained scenes (it seems a bit prosaic to call them levels), each representing a significant moment related directly or indirectly to the girl’s life. These are grouped into three acts covering different phases of her life. As the girl’s guardian, you must help her through each one, but discovering what exactly that requires is part of the puzzle. Unlike the traditional three-wishes-type genie, your powers are far from omnipotent: you’re tied to your amphora, for starters, leaving you a limited sphere of influence. You don’t have much of a physical presence, either, just a puff of smoke that follows the cursor. Fortunately, that’s enough to let you grab small objects (and animals), move them around and turn them. (Sadly, though, moving the amphora itself is beyond you.) You’re also able to conjure up a sort of mystical rope, drawing strands of it across the screen to link objects together. This is all handled with realistic physics, so objects fly through the air and bounce around and even your rope swings about unless you anchor it tightly.
Despite these limitations, you'll find yourself tasked with everything from giving your baby girl her dolly back, to saving her from drowning, creating the perfect romantic moment and launching ships. Under your care, she grows up and falls in love, only to be caught up in a war that threatens to break her heart. Through it all you're there, gently guiding her and keeping her and her loved ones safe.
The developers were inspired by the ancient art of shadow theatre, and the results are nothing short of gorgeous. In real shadow theatre, the characters are flat, articulated puppets traversing cut-out scenery between a light and the screen. (If you've ever put your hand in front of a light and tried to cast rabbit-shaped shadows on the wall, you've got the idea; just imagine that raised to high art.) Amphora takes this idea and runs with it, putting silhouette characters in front of a smoky, multicoloured background and layers of silhouette scenery. The characters aren't simple dark shapes, however, instead having coloured highlights that reminded me of nothing so much as panes of stained glass. Smoke is also a bit of a recurring theme here: moving the cursor around leaves a smoke trail and completing a level causes it to dissolve into puffs of smoke and fade away. I frequently felt like I was playing a painting, or perhaps a paper cut-out, and sometimes just had to take a moment to drink it all in.
The characters move like marionettes, too. Seldom has the term rag-doll physics seemed so appropriate or fit the setting so well: you can just imagine there's a virtual puppeteer below the horizon. Some of the animals can be picked up and moved around, but the people are too heavy for that (though you can pull them around and watch them bounce back into position, as if spring-loaded). It's all more puppetlike than lifelike, yet that doesn't stop you from identifying with them as people. I felt a bit like a benevolent god making sure the girl's life stayed on track.
The music completes this impression of dreamy unreality, with simple but atmospheric arrangements that are by turns serene, menacing and sad. In keeping with shadow theatre's origins, many of the melodies have a middle- or far-eastern flavour, fitting for a Japanese tea garden or a Moroccan souk. That said, there are delicate piano and harp tunes too; the developers claim the game is inspired by the "colors of the world", and they've included the music of the world as well.Continued on the next page...